Manchester United are beyond a joke with Louis van Gaal's dull football
Seldom has a Manchester United victory been greeted so pessimistically as the one Saturday in the FA Cup third round.
Louis van Gaal's men were dreadful in the 1-0 win against Sheffield United -- or "the first United," as many travelling fans reminded the fanzine sellers on Sir Matt Busby Way before the game.
United, the 20-time champions of England, are in the fourth round draw of a competition fans would love to see them win again, but there's so little confidence in the current team that a mood of gloom prevails.
Supporters have done everything that could be asked. They've supported their side at games, but the football remains so monotonously boring that defiance turned to sarcasm and ironic cheers when their team dared to have a shot in the second half on Saturday.
Is there a team in football history which cost so much to assemble but remains as soporific as this United one? It's stocked with diligent professionals and tidy footballers, but most don't look good enough for the standards United fans expect.
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Without a sporting director, Van Gaal was given total control to mould the club how he wanted. He got rid of the players he didn't see fit -- and some would say the characters with the gumption to energise the dressing room and stand up to him -- and signed the ones he wanted, with largely underwhelming results.
Again, that's not entirely Van Gaal's fault. He wanted Patrice Evra, who signed for United 10 years ago, to stay. Evra, who remains utterly infatuated with United, also wanted to stay, but left for personal reasons and joined Juventus. The mixed fortunes of Evra's replacement, Luke Shaw, could hardly be blamed on Van Gaal.
The Dutchman asked for his team to be judged in his second season. Midway through it, the assessments now are damning, yet there has been a feeling among senior people at the club that to sack him in midseason will only set the club back further.
The current football is beyond a joke and the question of United finishing in the top four this term remains moot. Away games at Newcastle on Tuesday and Liverpool on Sunday will give an indicator, but the team are playing so badly it would stun fans if they emulated their victories at St James' Park and Anfield last season this time around.
In public, the players have to stay on message: cliched and positive. They're under contract, reluctant to criticise their bosses. There are no players like Roy Keane in the dressing room; a character who would break ranks with independent thought and would be willing to face the furore which follows.
In many cases, they were bought by Van Gaal, so they have a loyalty to him, yet they've not shone as expected and could be shipped out by a new manager for not being good enough. That would begin another cycle of new transfers and sales, the sort no club wants, where United are left with players on too much money who nobody else can afford unless their wages are subsidised.
At least when it happens at Real Madrid, the incoming boss inherits world class footballers. Which United players could be classed as that at present? David De Gea is perhaps the only one. For a variety of reasons, the top class players who've arrived -- Radamel Falcao, Angel Di Maria and Bastian Schweinsteiger -- have hardly stood out and lifted the crowd as such players are expected to. They'll each have their reasons why, but this is Manchester United, the biggest club in the world by many indicators and one which has failed to trouble the Ballon d'Or and FIFPro awards with alarming regularity. Barcelona charter a flight to Switzerland every year for the awards. The only time United are likely to go to Switzerland is to play a team in the Europa League.
United have trusted an experienced and previously successful manager to do a job and he must be praised for his belief in youngsters. Anthony Martial looks like a future Ballon d'Or winner, but it's all too little and fans are falling asleep. The Dutch master's work isn't progressing. For match-going supporters who continue to fill Old Trafford, the 90 minutes has become the low point of a great day out. For fans watching around the world, how long before they tune out?
In one sense, it's admirable the club are sticking by their man. It's admirable too that fans have refused to hound Van Gaal at matches beyond a few boos and sarcastic cheers, but that's not to say they're in any way satisfied. And is United's great strength -- their fans -- also a weakness? The incentive to change manager while the stadium remains full and largely respectful is lessened. The club's bottom line isn't being hit, the club store is packed and the shirt sales are exceeding expectations. A club in "crisis" is still gripping -- until the game starts.
United dominate the media landscape either way, but that wouldn't continue in the long term if they keep slipping, though it's never clear cut: United remained England's best-supported team even when they played in the second division. Fans may say they're going to be less inclined to spend good money to watch the entertainment-free football being served up, yet they mostly will because going to football is what they do for significant stages of their lives.
There are parallels with what happened at Liverpool after they stopped winning titles last century and became a club pumped up on nostalgia, where books about past glories sell well and there are dinners to celebrate triumphs 10, 20, 30 and 40 years before.
Yet Liverpool were left behind financially and were unable to compete for the same players as United. The great irony is that United are stronger financially than ever but on the evidence seen so far under Van Gaal, money has been poorly invested to create a low-scoring team that plays possession-heavy, dull football week-after-week.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.